ALLEN PARK, Mich. — Two years ago, linebacker was considered a major weakness for the New England Patriots. Not anymore.
The 2019 Patriots boast what appears to be the franchise’s most talented linebacking corps in years, with returning former star Jamie Collins rejoining a unit that features Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, John Simon, Elandon Roberts and a now-healthy Ja’Whaun Bentley, plus rookie edge rusher Chase Winovich.
This unit’s greatest strength, as Hightower explained following Tuesday’s joint practice with the Detroit Lions, might be its versatility. Hightower, Van Noy, Collins and Simon all have the ability to play either off the line or on the edge, making it difficult for offenses to predict where each will line up on a given play.
“I think it just helps us down the road,” Hightower said. “A lot of offenses try to game plan for guys being in certain spots in situations, and whenever we’re able to mix it up and line up different, or be in a different front, or blitz, or cover, or drop or whatever, nobody really knows where we’re at. As long as we can continue to grow chemistry between ourselves and continue to learn the defense, we know we’ll be all right.”
Van Noy on Monday boasted about the Patriots’ “elite” linebacker depth, which the team has tapped into this summer as it’s utilized more three-man fronts than in years past. Hightower was more cautious in his projections, warning against complacency, but said few units in the NFL are this multi-talented.
“I think it’s fun,” Hightower said. “A lot of times guys are just lined up in one particular spot, but one of the things that we do here is you get asked to do one, two, three different things if possible. It definitely makes our defense unique and a lot different.
“It’s just good to be able to cover back here, drop in zone here, blitz here, coordinate a rush over here. I think everybody kind of enjoys not knowing where you’re going to be. Just waiting to hear the call.”
In addition to the aforementioned ‘backers, the likes of Shilique Calhoun, Derek Rivers, Trent Harris, Terez Hall, Calvin Munson, Christian Sam and Brandon King also have been in the mix in training camp, with edge rushers Calhoun and Rivers seeing considerable reps with the first team.
Collins, a first-teamer since the day he arrived back in Foxboro, has been one of the stars of camp thus far. He’s been particularly involved this week, breaking up three passes and forcing one fumble over the Patriots’ first two joint practices.